Can the leopards of Fleet Street ever really change their spots?
- Credit: Archant
Once noted for climate scepticism, the Express has now launched a green campaign. LIZ GERARD assesses the extent to which newspapers can ever comprehensively switch their stance.
Under new management! It’s a sign we’ll be seeing a lot when we finally emerge from this pandemic, as collapsed enterprises are rescued or people decide they’ve had enough after a lifetime spent building up a going concern.
The incomers will either completely break with the past or try to keep the ethos of the business and build on its reputation. “We’re the same, but different” is a tricky message to sell.
As it is with restaurants, shops and cottage industries, so it is with the press. Since 2018, six of our ten national daily newspapers have seen new people in the editor’s chair. Have we noticed the difference?
Any changes at the Mirror and FT have been subtle. The Sun, under Victoria Newton, has become less political, while the Star, under Jon Clark, is more so; the Sun has more reality TV front pages, the Star far fewer. This much is noticeable.
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But the new men at the helm who have come to the widest attention are Geordie Greig at the Mail and Gary Jones at the Express. Not least because – unlike most editors who are shy as deer when it comes to facing the public – they have both given detailed interviews outlining their philosophies.
Greig wants to make the Mail “a force for good”; Jones to “detoxify” the Express. And they intend to do so by campaigning – because all journalists want to be Hugh Cudlipp or Harry Evans – starting with the “Mail Force One” PPE effort, laptops for schoolchildren, drugs for cystic fibrosis sufferers and “green revolutions”.
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We’ve heard most from Jones, who moved from the Sunday Mirror when the Trinity Mirror group bought the Express and its Daily Star stablemate and reinvented itself as Reach in 2018. He appeared before a Commons select committee, gave first anniversary interviews to the Guardian and trade website Press Gazette, and has now resurfaced with third anniversary interviews with Amol Rajan of the BBC, and Press Gazette again.
He seems understandably eager to tell the world that this isn’t the Richard Desmond Express pandering to an ultra-royalist, immigrant-sceptic, hypochondriac, always open to five golden rules to live longer or miracle cures in the larder.
Jones is also keen to dispel the image of his readers as doddery old white men, saying their average age is 55 for print, 40 online. Which does make one wonder why the paper continues to suffer from Mark Francois-syndrome. Neither staff nor readers were alive, let alone served, during the Second World War; they didn’t use £sd or learn pounds and ounces or Fahrenheit at school, yet all these apparently remain dear to their hearts.
Jones’ standout promise was to stop publishing anti-immigration stories. Welcome as it was, it was not a hard one to make or keep. Both the Express and Mail used immigration as a weapon during the referendum campaign, building up hostility in the years running up to the vote, reaching a climax in 2016, with a total of 128 front-page leads and 1,768 inside stories between them.
With the result they wanted in the bag and thousands of Europeans deciding to go home, the feet came off the pedals, and the total fell to 36 front pages in 2017. Having averaged 12 a month in 2016, the Express ran only three migration splashes in the ten weeks of 2018 before Jones took over.
So by the time the new editor told MPs of his sleepless nights about xenophobia, the “issue” his predecessor had gone a long way to create was no longer much of an issue for anyone any more. It’s simple to veto the full page manufactured outrage over asylum seekers mugging old women at cash machines – the sort of story that wouldn’t make a nib if the assailant were a white British youth.
The challenge will come if there is another African refugee crisis; if there is another surge in Islamist terrorism; if hundreds of thousands of people start arriving from Hong Kong; if more Indians are granted visas to come to Britain in return for the “deeper trade ties” announced by Liz Truss this month. What if readers start kicking up about a new influx?
For here is the real test of editorship: do you lead or follow your readers? In his recent BBC interview, Jone said that he had been bombarded on his appointment with emails from people concerned about his Labour-voting, left-leaning tabloid background and seeking reassurance that he wasn’t going to “ruin” their paper.
It’s hard to imagine that anyone would write to a newspaper editor demanding that he continue to run stories that created an Islamophobic sentiment, and articles about health scares, although it’s feasible that they might want to establish that the paper would continue to be Conservative, “patriotic” and not go all woke.
With competition authorities watching to make sure the 'balance' of the media landscape isn’t disrupted, Jones wasn’t about to turn the Express into a leftie rag. (Although never say never: after all, Rupert Murdoch promised that the old Sun – a reincarnation of the defunct Daily Herald – would continue to support Labour when he bought the struggling title from Mirror owners IPC in 1969.) Jones told Rajan that it was his paper’s job to give voice to his readers, his own role to “be their waiter”; in the Press Gazette chat, he said he hoped he had now been accepted and that he was giving readers what they wanted.
“Every single day I ask myself ‘is that what the readers want?’” Which is all very well if your aim is to keep the people you already have, but may not be such a great strategy if you want to reach different pairs of eyes. To do that, you need to follow your instincts, not your readers, and to have the courage to give loyal customers what they don’t want as well as what you know they like. This is some balancing act. You don’t want to frighten them away in the hope of attracting a new audience that may not even be there. But if you don’t try, your paper will die with your readers.
Editors particularly have to beware of what used to be called the green ink brigade. These are people with pet subjects, who will dash to their desk to protest at every perceived misstep. Something as minor as a split infinitive can be dealt with in a memo to the chief sub-editor. But if you get a mailbox full of indignation every time you run a story about, say, rottweilers, you might begin to wonder whether it’s worth the hassle.
When two stories are competing for one slot in the paper, you might subconsciously take the easy route of using the one that isn’t about rottweilers. You might tell your newsdesk: “Readers don’t like stories about rottweilers.” But even if you don’t go that far, the news editor has probably already picked up the subliminal message and told reporters: “The editor doesn’t like stories about rottweilers.”
This really happens. On issues that are far more important than black and tan dogs – like transgender rights or the Middle East peace process – and often on no greater basis than a clutch of angry letters from readers with a common bugbear.
The skill here is to recognise when the noisy activists represent only a tiny fraction of your readership and when they are truly speaking for the majority of your audience. And then you have to decide whether you should give the readers what they want, whether you can gently encourage them to be open to a different view – or, much harder, whether you actually want their custom at all.
Of course, these days an editor has far more tools than the circulation graph and the green-ink postbag to divine what readers think – from focus groups to algorithms and clever monitors that can tell them exactly how many seconds a reader pauses over any page or story. But the great editors have little need for these. They just know. Paul Dacre, whatever you think of him, had his finger absolutely on the pulse of every aspect of his paper and the people he was trying to address without any assistance from a computer. He was effectively running the country from his Derry Street office. And never more so than on Brexit.
Reluctantly handing over the reins in 2018, he warned Greig that Brexit was in the Mail reader’s DNA and that to change the paper’s stance would be commercial suicide. As editor of the Mail on Sunday, Greig had backed Remain in the referendum and when he moved to the daily, some of us hoped that he might at least back a “confirmatory vote” as Theresa May struggled to secure an exit deal that satisfied her own MPs. That was not to be. The angry anti-European rhetoric was toned down, but Brexit still meant Brexit and switching sides was not an option for Greig – or for fellow Remain voter Jones over at the Express. Both backed May’s “vision” and when that was derailed they moved swiftly on.
Perhaps that’s what we should have done. Perhaps if Remainers hadn’t pushed so hard for the ultimate prize of staying in the EU and instead settled for the least worst Brexit available, we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in today. And now we’re fully out, where should we go from here? It’s a question we are asking ourselves here at The New European – which is also under new ownership. Like Jones and Greig, the editor has to make decisions about how to develop and broaden the paper’s outlook and appeal: some readers are desperate for an immediate campaign to rejoin, others see that as futile. Some will inevitably be disappointed by whichever path is chosen, but every effort will be made to keep existing readers on board.
Whatever their personal opinions of the man, both Jones and Greig knew that their readers loved “Boris”. So they both ended up cheering him as the new PM, his Withdrawal Agreement and his so-called free trade deal. Pragmatism always wins in the end. And remember, newspapers are as good as cats at performing a 180° turn and pretending they never wanted to go in the other direction in the first place – look at how the appeasing press, including the Mail, Express, Times and Observer, changed tack when Britain declared war on Hitler.
Now both the Express and Mail editors are wearing blinkers as far as the ports chaos and the industries being destroyed by Brexit “teething problems” are concerned.
And while the Mail has taken the government to task on care homes and PPE during the pandemic, both papers continue to churn out the “good old Boris is doing his best/will see us right” headlines, even in the face of a six-figure death toll and economic collapse.
Where Dacre’s Mail was strident in its attacks on David Cameron’s alleged cronyism – once he was out of office – with headlines such as “Fury at Dave’s gongs for his cronies” and “Arise Sir Remain”, neither the Greig Mail nor the Jones Express has seen fit to question the Brexity peerages or the billions-worth of pandemic contracts handed to Tory pals and donors. Even with an election four years away, nothing must be allowed to jeopardise the Conservatives’ grip on power.
Just as TNE will always be fervently outwardly-looking pro-European. Some things can never change.
The new-era Express won two awards last year for its successful campaign to secure a drug for cystic fibrosis sufferers on the NHS. Now it is following the Mail and Sun in switching from climate denial to trying to save the planet.
Jones seems to be taking a “don’t frighten the horses” approach in his “green crusade”; combining environmentalism with nationalism – complete with green Union Flag and wartime imagery – and emphasising how it is “in Britain’s interests” to avoid a climate catastrophe.
It will be interesting to see how columnists adapt to the new philosophy: Leo McKinstry, Ross Clark, Ann Widdecombe, James Delingpole and Richard and Judy have spent years pooh-poohing global warming and railing at the Copenhagen and Paris conferences – and all but Delingpole are still in situ.
And while the new campaign is founded on a survey that found that two-thirds of respondents were worried about climate change and the environment, is that proportion reflected among Express readers? Or are they still in mourning for their incandescent light bulbs and high-voltage vacuum cleaners?
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